I had a young man come into my office the other day looking absolutely terrible.
He kind of barged in and planted himself on my couch. In that bit of silence, I noticed a leadership book in his hand.
“Hey,” I said, “how’s that book? I haven’t read it yet.”
“It’s great. There’s so much in here, great information and….” He paused, searching for the right words.
“And you feel inadequate.” I finished for him.
He stared at me as though I could read minds or had some other supernatural psychic ability, but all I had was experience feeling the same way, at about the same spot in my career as he’s at now. The big problem was that he’s reading about the ideal, the end point with the perfect hindsight on organizational leadership in a position that is technically impossible for him to achieve.
As we all do when we get some momentum, my guy just getting his sea legs as a middle manager tried to compare himself to this glossy and shiny accounting from a man at the top. It had all sorts of phrases like “WE AS LEADERS MUST…” and such, boiling what I know for a fact are daily moral and emotional battles down to a fairly happy ending, all cleaned up, professionally edited with some catchy edicts, and published with a nice smiling picture on the front.
To put it in perspective, the author of that book would be the equivalent of my boss, nine or ten paygrades above the person reading the book. So, here’s one of my guys with serious potential to find himself in my seat trying to read the grand testimony of a guy in a seat I would never be ready for. The hard part is that we read these books, get some ideal in our head, and then look around us at reality.
His reality is absolutely messy with military requirements, personnel issues, resource challenges, technical problems, personality conflicts, and that’s just at work, not to mention a real home life with its own demands and stressors. Many books from people looking back on their successes seem to omit that kind of stuff. When I asked my guy for the specifics, he said he wanted to do more, be more effective and impact the organization on a bigger scale. This is something I understand and struggle with as well, even at my level. We all want to do better, to meet that ideal we have in our head and be the picture-perfect versions we know we could be, if only real life would stop interfering.
Sadly, real life won’t stop, but that’s another post.
The frustrating part in all of this is that this guy in front of me is actually doing quite well. I’ve told him exactly what I want him and his group working towards when he and I first met, and he’s steadily doing all I’ve asked as best as can be expected.
“I don’t want you to be that guy in the book,” I said, “I just want you to be the best you.”
And it’s true. I don’t need him striving to be the next CEO of this organization, and I don’t want him testing out some leadership tenets he’s read in the latest book. We have a boss, and we have a leadership style consistent with that boss. Anything else, and any experimentation, can distract someone like my guy from doing what I need him to do. Just like someone trying to build the better mousetrap, the result can be two steps backwards. As I’ve said earlier, books on leadership are fun, but the thing that has made most of us successful didn’t come out of a book, it came from coaching and experience.
One of those experiences we all have to go through sooner or later is the gap between the real and ideal. I want this rising star sitting on my couch to realize that success isn’t always about meeting the ideal, but steadily working towards an ideal we may never achieve. That realization comes with a dose of humility most of us never lose.
I’m glad he’s reading books on leadership, and I’m happy that he wants to do more, have a broader impact, and do more good. I consider myself lucky to have someone like him. What he wants, really, is to be in my position, to have the impact I have and fight the good fight for people like him. It’s admirable, and it’s truly possible in a decade. Sadly, I don’t know of any books from people in my position, just people in my boss’s, so I do what I can to help him be the best him, not the best CEO.
I want the same for you, to be the best you, become comfortable with who you are, what you’re good at, and have a plan to be better at the job expected of you. If your manager or boss has expectations for you, find out what they are. Moving towards those will likely move you in the right direction to become that leader you hope to be.
– What was the first leadership book you picked up, and did it make you feel empowered or inadequate?
– Leadership books are best used for discussions with your mentor or coach, not always implementation the minute you close them. Do you have an opportunity to have those kinds of discussions?
Have a great weekend out there.
James Tinker recently retired from a 25-year naval career, and is a life coach and business consultant for personal and professional development. His blog series The Day Job is published regularly for BDN Blogs and Maine Career Connect.